Thousands of Baltimore-area public school students are expected to return from spring break this week, raising fresh concerns over a potential rise in COVID cases.
Students in Baltimore City and Baltimore County school systems will return to classrooms Tuesday following a weeklong vacation. Although overall positivity and transmission rates remain low in Maryland, health experts say some metrics are rising and could signal another wave of the pandemic in the coming weeks.
Some school systems and universities expanded some COVID mitigation policies in hope of curtailing the risk to students and faculty following the vacation.
Here’s what you need to know:
What’s happening with cases in schools?
Maryland’s case counts are relatively low, but some health experts say the metrics might not capture all at-home COVID test results.
Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said officials are keeping a close watch on hospitalizations stemming from the virus, which typically lag two to three weeks behind initial exposure.
“Cases are the tip of the iceberg; they’re what we can see,” she said. “It’s the beginning of what could be another wave of the pandemic.”
The Maryland State Department of Health, which updates its COVID data for schools on Wednesdays, reported some cases in a handful of private and public city and county schools ahead of the spring break. Test results following the break likely won’t become public until next week.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends a COVID vaccination for everyone 5 years and older. The agency updated its recommendations in March to say that masking would no longer be federally mandated on buses or vans operated by public or private school systems, including early care and other child care programs.
Even if the virus does not as severely impact children compared with adults, people should still remember that contracting and spreading COVID could be disruptive.
“We have to think about more than just the kids who are in those classrooms,” Althoff said. “We have to think about their families, their teachers.”
How have schools prepared for a return from spring break?
Some schools are taking a proactive approach to testing students for COVID upon their return from spring break. The Baltimore City school system offered its students and staff free COVID test kits ahead of the time off.
Officials said the distribution of tests was a measure designed to prevent outbreaks of COVID cases in schools following the spring break. Students and staff are encouraged to take a test before returning to school Tuesday. The school system said it will also resume regular testing in schools for some students and school staff.
Meanwhile, some universities have already returned from spring break to campus in recent weeks.
The Johns Hopkins University observed a jump in cases following its time off, which was March 21 to 27. Officials reported at the time that both residential and nonresidential students tested positive or experienced exposures linked to travel.
The university has resumed its COVID testing of students twice a week through Friday, with the possibility of an extension after that. Masking is still required in Hopkins’ classrooms and was resumed in common areas of residences and dining halls following the spring break.
Althoff believes reviving a testing policy or handing out at-home tests ahead of a return to classrooms is appropriate timing, she said.
“This is a good example of saying, ‘We want people to know their status before kids start pouring into hallways,’” Althoff said. “There’s still a choice individuals have to make. But when you think about community and other parents and kids’ classes, I think people might start to realize that participating in these programs can benefit in everyone’s health.”
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How can families protect the health of students and educators?
Most families and school employees who traveled during the spring break probably considered the risks before doing so, Althoff said. Some might have donned masks or taken at-home rapid tests to protect loved ones.
“When you return from those trips, it’s about applying that same logic and understanding to how you return to your home communities,” she said.
People who believe their chances of exposure were high during the vacation should wear a mask for a few days and take at-home tests, Althoff said.
The Maryland State Department of Education lifted its masking mandate for schools in March. School systems were still permitted to enact their own mandates, but most across the region shifted to a mask-optional policy in the following weeks.
Still, Althoff says masking is a beneficial tool for helping to reduce COVID. And the risk of spread doesn’t end in the classroom — there are still social gatherings for team sports and clubs.
“It’s not just the school environment. It’s school community,” she said. “These are places where we can do small steps as individuals to prevent big disruptions.”